Nobu’s no-no: The rise and fall of the bluefin tuna

Photo of tuna at Tsukiji market by dogonthesidewalk at flickrWith the Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin stocks plummeting to shockingly low levels, chef and restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa (24 prestigious restaurants around the world) is under pressure from a battalion of critics to remove the fish from his menu until populations are sustainable. So far, Nobu's restaurants haven't done much besides adding a footnote to the bluefin tuna items on the menu informing the customer that the fish is "environmentally challenged" and offering to provide a substitute type of fish.

Over at Chews Wise, Sam Fromartz asked experts on cooking, restaurant operation, and fisheries "What should Nobu do?"  The answers varied, but generally tilt towards  include 'use considerable culinary skills of your staff to create delicious food that doesn't include bluefin,' and 'show some leadership by dropping bluefin from the menu.'

Change that tuna

Humans' fatal attraction to bluefin tuna was not love at first sight. Just a few decades ago in New England, a giant bluefin tuna was a financial liability. Mature bluefin often weigh over 500 pounds and measure more than 6 feet in length. The fish were exciting to catch — and a photograph of you standing next to a huge fish was a wonderful souvenir — but almost no one wanted them, certainly not high-end restaurants. If you could find a pet-food company to buy your trophy fish, you might get 50 cents per pound. Otherwise, the fish went to the town dump or was hauled back out to sea and 'buried at sea.'

The world of the bluefin has been up-ended since those days. It is one of the most prized morsels at the sushi bar, fish sell for thousands of dollars at auctions in Tokyo, and tuna ranching is big business.

Photo of cover of The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg

The story of this dramatic reversal in fortune and taste is told in Sasha Issenberg's "The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy." I got the book at the library to look up some figures about tuna, but after reading a few pages was snared by Issenberg's engaging writing and the fascinating story; within a few days, I had finished the book.

Issenberg goes into great detail about the efforts to use commercial airplanes to ship fresh tuna from where the fish were — the Atlantic coast — to where the customers were — Japan. Many innovations were needed, including ways to handle the fish after it was brought onto the fishing vessel without causing too much damage, how to keep the fish cold during the long flight to Japan, and so on. The middle of the book covers sushi's history, then moves on to modern sushi with a profile of Nobu Matsuhisa and a look at the inner workings of a top sushi restaurant in Austin, Texas (Tyson Cole's Uchi).

One of the final chapters in the book is about 'tuna ranching.' At first glance, the concept of raising tuna in captivity seems promising. However, unlike cattle or sheep ranching, where the animals are controlled from birth to death, no one has figured out how to raise a bluefin tuna from an egg (although some Japanese researchers are trying very hard). And so, fish are caught at sea and transferred to pens to fatten up until they can be sold for the right price. This process removes breeding stock from the oceans before they have a chance to reproduce and is probably not much better for the species than normal fishing. And of course, as predators at the top of the food chain, even tuna in captivity must consume many pounds of wild fish protein to generate one pound of tuna.

Even if (like me) you have never eaten sushi, "The Sushi Economy" is a fascinating look at the origins and evolution of this now ubiquitous food. The bluefin tuna part of the story is simultaneously inspiring and depressing, as it shows how humanity's ability to solve problems and innovate can easily create 'solutions' that overtax nature's regenerative ability. Unfortunately, the current problem of depleted tuna stocks probably can't be solved by clever new technologies; instead, rebuilding the tuna population will require tough political negotiations between nations, major changes to the tuna fishing industry, and adjustments in behavior at the fish counter and at the restaurant table.

More:

  • A new documentary about overfishing, "The End of the Line," opens today (June 12).
  • In April, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a group of Pacific island nations agreed to protect tuna populations in their territorial waters through new restrictions and regulations. The measures are aimed at yellowfin, bigeye and albacore species, which have been more or less eliminated from the Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans. Trawlers from those areas have thus moved to new waters, and now island nations are taking action.
  • Shortly before that agreement, a new global partnership to preserve tuna was was announced. The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), comprising scientists, the fishing industry, and environmental groups, will attempt to use science to determine sustainable catch levels, share catch data with regional fishery managers, and work with fishing companies to reduce by-catch. The members will also dabble in politics by monitoring catch levels and pledging to not purchase tuna caught by vessels that have been involved in illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.
  • A graphic by fisheries expert Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia in Foreign Policy shows the troubling trends for one population of bluefin tuna and also provides some statistics on other fishing-related subjects.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch has lots of information about bluefin tuna in the scientific reports at the bottom of the page.
  • A few years ago, Living on Earth had an "audio postcard" from the Tsukiji market in Tokyo that has the sounds of a real auction.

Photo of Tuna at Tsukiji market by Jenny Webber, used with permission.

One Responseto “Nobu’s no-no: The rise and fall of the bluefin tuna”

  1. Katrina says:

    I saw a 20 minute clip of End of the Line which highlighted the plight of bluefin tuna.  The numbers of fish taken and remaining were breathtaking but the hardest fact of all was that industrial fisheries, Mitsubishi being the one named in the film, are freezing a portion of their catch in anticipation of the collapse of the bluefin and therefore a better price on their catch.  There was an audible gasp in the theater at this.  All of which makes me interested in this book.  Thanks for the review.